The recent limited series “The Offer” reminded viewers that before Albert S. Ruddy was taken seriously as the producer of “The Godfather,” he was often dismissed as the guy who created “Hogan’s Heroes.” Similarly, another key architect of the New Hollywood of the 1970s — director and producer Bob Rafelson — would find himself earning greater respect as the man behind such iconic, essential American films as “Five Easy Pieces,” “The Last Picture Show” and “Easy Rider” than as one of the creators of “The Monkees.”
The difference, of course, is that “Hogan’s Heroes” is the kind of old sitcom contemporary audiences would call “problematic,” while “The Monkees” has endured both as a screwball piece of television and as the launching pad for a band that’s beloved to this day. It’s a show that also launched Rafelson into his directorial debut, 1968’s “Head,” a brilliant deconstruction of the “pre-fab four” that was too weird for kids who loved the Monkees and not cool enough for cineastes who wouldn’t be caught dead at a Monkees movie.
Time has been kind to “Head,” but it’s not the first time that Rafelson would be ahead of the curve. Born in 1933 in New York City — his one connection to show business being his uncle (or first cousin once removed, depending on the account) Samson Raphaelson, a screenwriter of early talkies including “The Jazz Singer” — Rafelson embraced la vie bohème long before the Summer of Love, frequently running away from home as a teenager to take up rodeo-riding in Arizona or playing in an Acapulco jazz combo.
Drafted after his graduation from Dartmouth, he served in Japan and fell in love with the films of Yasujirô Ozu, focusing on the filmmaker’s legendary stillness of tone and deliberate compositions. That sense of zen didn’t necessarily carry over into Rafelson’s life; in the early 1960s, as a producer for Universal Television, he was fired after famously knocking over MCA mogul Lew Wasserman’s desk during an argument.
While that gig didn’t last, he struck an enduring partnership with fellow producer Bert Schneider at Screen Gems. Their Raybert Productions launched “The Monkees,” but it was their subsequent company BBS Productions that would achieve a place in history as a key player in the Hollywood New Wave, creating such impactful and paradigm-shifting films as Dennis Hopper’s “Easy Rider,” Peter Bogdanovich’s “The Last Picture Show,” and Peter Davis’ anti-war doc “Hearts and Minds.”
One of the most important auteurs on their roster was Rafelson: After “Head” flopped, he re-teamed with Jack Nicholson (who co-starred in “Easy Writer” and co-wrote “Head”) on 1970’s “Five Easy Pieces,” a drama that, 50 years later, retains its naked emotional power and its caustic viewpoints on class and conformity in America. (Carole Eastman collaborated with Rafelson on the screenplay.) Nicholson stars as an oil-rig worker who has been running away from his privileged past, only to be brought face to face with the various versions of his identity on a trip home. (It’s the movie that features Nicholson’s legendary “hold the chicken” confrontation with a waitress.)
Rafelson and Nicholson would reunite again to varying degrees of success on 1972’s “The King of Marvin Gardens,” the 1981 remake of “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” 1992’s “Man Trouble” and 1996’s “Blood and Wine,” but Rafelson had other triumphs on his own. His 1976 comedy “Stay Hungry” (co-written with Charles Gaines and based on Gaines’ novel) launched the screen career of Arnold Schwarzenegger, while 1987’s “Black Widow” (written by Ron Bass) presaged the “Basic Instinct” era of complex and dangerous female villains; the latter film stars Theresa Russell as a serial spouse-slayer being pursued by federal agent Debra Winger, and the two engage in an engrossing game of cat-and-mouse.
Rafelson’s love of classic cinema (in addition to Ozu, he also proclaimed his admiration for Ingmar Bergman and John Ford) manifests itself most boldly in 1990’s “Mountains of the Moon,” about British explorers Burton and Speke’s search for the source of the Nile. Written by Rafelson and William Harrison (based on Harrison’s novel), it’s a bold mix of old-school grandeur with a post-colonialist perspective, and while it’s a stylistic outlier among Rafelson’s filmography, it’s as visually confident and character-centric as the films for which he’s most known.
As modern American filmmakers continue to look back at a period in which Hollywood radically changed and began telling new kinds of story, they will time and again come face to face with the work of Bob Rafelson, without whom this exciting era wouldn’t have been the same.